The founder of Patagonia, pioneering climber, original California surfer and environmental realist…
Portrait by Rupert Smissen
Yvon Chouinard – blacksmith, traveler, climber, surfer, fly fisherman, zen prankster – is also arguably the most successful businessman in the history of the outdoor industry. He has created in Patagonia a company that remains on the cutting edge – not only of technology and design but in the ethical values it practices and preaches.
Chouinard was always a pioneer. Born in 1938 in Maine, he moved to Southern California with his French Canadian family as an eight year old and became a surfer in the earliest days of that coastal subcult. In his teenage years he developed an interest in falconry, and while investigating the craggy aeries occupied by birds of prey in the rock faces of the Sierras he discovered the vertically oriented delights of climbing. He would go on to play a vital part of the evolution of North American alpinism - taking part in early ascents of the major routes on El Capitan in the most minimalist style and inspiring with his partners a move away from the high impact use of hand forged iron pitons toward lightweight, removable protection. He picked up influence from Eastern philosophy, as well as making a killing along the way - manufacturing and marketing the products that enabled him and his contemporaries to explore the mountains in a less harmful manner.
Patagonia was founded in the early seventies when on a trip to Britain the climber discovered the suitability of heavy cotton rugby shirts as outdoors apparel. A series of innovative moves including initiating progressive employment practices, the production of a series of flag-waving catalogues that stressed the importance environment and individuality in the values of the company and the initiation of the hugely successful ‘One Percent for the Planet’ initiative saw the company by the end of the eighties establish itself with a worldwide cult following.
In the early nineties they set the tone that has been copied by a generation of outdoor business by pioneering sustainability as a legitimate business aim. It was able to do this in response to a self-imposed ‘environmental audit’ – the findings of which led to the commitment to using non toxic, sustainably managed resources. By applying the principle of ‘do little harm’ to an otherwise hypocritically depletive industry that was (and largely still is) encouraging us all to love the planet to death - Patagonia as a brand has become resoundingly iconic amongst a generation who see themselves as environmental activists - even if that activism is encoded solely through their consumer choices.